Tara Betts is the bomb (and not just because she’s a Tara) but also because her poetry is like an energy bolt. Aside from just being an awesome writer, she’s active in literacy (which I fear we may be losing a grip on sometimes) and her words go beyond the page and touches many kinds of stages like fellow poet (and my dear friend) Jessica Care Moore. love that I can take this opportunity to get her to open up about her process behind her genius.
When you begin a story, what comes first to you (dialogue, imagery, etc)?
I have to start with a fragment of something, whether it’s a poem, story, or a nonfiction piece. There’s an image that I see and I try to find the words that clearly cultivate that image or the sensation experienced. Sometimes, it’s finding the unusual detail, an overheard snippet, or the unbelievable fact. My curiosity around that foments and mushrooms into where I’d like to go next.
What is the process like getting something from your head to the page?
It varies, really. Sometimes, a poem comes to me in a burst, and I’m close to a complete draft in the first attempt. Often, I have to gather inspiration—read, watch films, study artwork, talk to people, travel, then I can reflect how it contrasts with other experiences that I’ve had. I can carry an idea around for a few days or even a couple of months before I put it down on paper, but there are times when I write down a phrase, a sentence, the main idea, or an image so I don’t lose it.
What is the biggest difficulty in achieving that goal of having something on the page?
Making myself sit down long enough with a notebook or at the keyboard long enough to start generating work! I often encounter this problem when I talk to people in writing workshops too. They say that they are so busy with work, school, and family. I tell them what I end up telling myself—You have to make it a habit, a discipline. It’s also a matter of asking yourself if this is what you really want to do. I’ve wanted to write ever since I was a kid, and I’m slow with my process, so I get impatient and frustrated, but I want to make it happen, even if I only write 3 days a week, or 30 minutes daily or on weekends, but I will sit down and do it.
After you’ve started, when do you edit?
I edit as I write, on the first draft, as I type it. After it’s typed, I often let it sit awhile and show it to one or two people. I edit after all that when I face the hard copy printed out, and I can physically write on the pages. Reading aloud helps me edit too.
If you write fictional pieces, do you research? If so, what kind and how hard to rely on facts?
Whatever I write definitely includes research, I think that’s where that absorbing process comes into play, but there’s also specific focus for each piece. I wrote my first sci-fi story, and I went to read about shapeshifters and the terminology around that. I wrote a poem where lovers were like matchboxes, so I looked up the term for collecting matchbooks and boxes—phillumeny, but I wanted to think about how a match makes friction, heat, and light by brushing against something, which is like brushing against a person’s arm or leg when you’re attracted to them. Then there are historically-based pieces or writing about your life and retracing other events that were happening.
Do you expose your “in progress” writing to other people? Why or why not?
Sometimes, I’ve been less hesitant to do that because I want the work to feel whole and complete before I share it. I used to blog quite a bit or test out new drafts at readings more, but now I feel like people share so much right away, that part of me wants to buck against it. I do share with a few people sometimes if I think their feedback will help.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?
It’s necessary to seek balance and grounding outside of your writing. You have to stay focused on writing and reading, but you have to consider your health, family, and enjoying your life. What causes are you committed to and can your creative work and the rest of your life choices impact that in a healthy way.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?
When people have tried to advise me on what I should not write about. Nothing is off limits if I want to write about it.
What kind of mediums do you use to get your writing out there the public?
I make submitting work to journals and anthologies a consistent practice, and I do well with that. I’ve featured at and curated readings for a long time so having a chapbook, broadsides, or a book is ideal for you to carry. I’ve sold hundreds of copies doing just that. Although, I’m also excited about working with artists in other disciplines—musicians, visual artists, dancers, and theater collaborations.
How often do you edit a piece once it’s “done”?
I’ve been known to tweak pieces after they’re “done.” If I’m performing poems, I’ve done vamped out versions with musicians. That’s fun too. Then there are writers who have published other versions of their work like in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, who published several versions of the same poem, or I think of this Raymond Carver written in two different styles. We can edit to tell the story differently, especially since we can grow and change as writers. When I consider examples like theirs, I have permission to edit.
What do you think is the biggest misconception of writing or being a writer?
That it’s romantic and dreamy. I feel like it’s hard work that usually isn’t financially rewarded in the same way that another job might. Too many people think you should do it simply because you love it. If you’ve gotten the education, helped other writers, been a voracious reader, published, and you keep working at your craft throughout this process, there should be some recognition and some incentives for the quality and effort behind that work that seems so easy and idyllic to some.
How do you feel about offering other writers feedback on their writing if asked?
I offer feedback far fewer people than I used to because I want to spend more time on my writing and well-being. Some people don’t take your time and effort into consideration, and make me want to revisit a Village Voice piece by screenwriter Josh Olson called “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.” I’m often really slow on getting back to people too. When I teach and offer feedback to students, it takes a lot out of me so I try not to overextend myself. When I do, I usually ask them what they want their concerns and particular parts that they want feedback on.
(I too loved this article! – TTT)
How has your writing evolved from the beginning? 10 years ago? Last year?
It’s far less simplistic and didactic. My bank of ideas has increased, and I’ve broadened my range of influences. I ‘m feeling more comfortable writing prose. My interest in formal poetry has grown, and that compelled me to break away from the language that I might use to write about emotionally charged topics. I don’t always feel like the poems have to be narrative, but I still consider how they can represent certain ideas and how they can be accessible.
Tara Betts is the author of the book Arc and Hue, her debut collection on Aquarius Press/Willow Books. Tara is a lecturer in creative writing at Rutgers University. She is also a Cave Canem fellow and VONA alum. She is co-editing Bop, Strut, and Dance, a collection of Bop poems, with Afaa M. Weaver.
Her work is anthologized in Gathering Ground, Bum Rush the Page, Power Lines, Poetry Slam, Black Writing from Chicago, ROLE CALL, These Hands I Know, Hurricane Blues, Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism, Fingernails Across a Chalkboard, Tate Britain Museum’s The Undergrowth, 44 on 44, and Letters to the World, and the upcoming A Face to Meet the Faces and Villanelles.
Tara appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and the Black Family Channel series “SPOKEN” with Jessica Care Moore. She represented Chicago twice at the National Poetry Slam. Her work has been adapted for Steppenwolf Theater’s “Words on Fire,” “Fingernails Across a Chalkboard” at the National Black Theater, and several productions of “That Takes Ovaries!” In 2011, she was commissioned by the Peggy Choy Dance Company to write a short libretto inspired by the brief friendship of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Tara Betts encourages literacy and works with arts programs. In Chicago, she was an influential educator. Tara co-founded GirlSpeak, a writing/leadership workshop for young women. She has also conducted short-term workshops in schools, community centers, Ms. Foundation, City Girls (a substance abuse rehabilitation center for teen girls), Cook County Jail and Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, Louder Arts Project, Cooper Union, Dodge Foundation’s Poets-In-The-Schools program, Brooklyn’s Imani House, and London’s Roundhouse. She coached and mentored countless young writers and performers that have participated in Brave New Voices and Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry slams.
You can get updates about her upcoming events and projects on her Facebook fan page or by visiting http://www.tarabetts.net.
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